Article 4. The wrath of God abideth upon those who believe not this gospel. But such as receive it, and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith, are by him delivered from the wrath of God, and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them.
The English translation of this article, as given in our Psalter, is concerned, it may be granted that it is substantially correct, provided that we bear in mind that the word “receive” must be understood in the active sense, as meaning “to take to one’s self.” This is the clear meaning of the Latin original, as well as of the Dutch term used here, aannemen. It is further in harmony with the rest of the article, which speaks of embracing Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith.
Gradually our Canons approach the subject of divine predestination from the historical point of view. It would be quite possible, of course, to treat the entire subject in a different manner, and to begin with a maintenance of and exposition of the truth of sovereign predestination. But the Canons, rather than beginning there and then developing the whole truth of our salvation out of predestination as the cause, follow instead in this first chapter the inductive method. In Article 2 is presented the truth that the love of God was manifested in the sending of His son, in order that whosoever believeth on him should have everlasting life. In Article 3 the point of contact between that manifestation of the love of God and the minds and hearts of men is presented, namely, the preaching of the good tidings “to whom he will, and at what time he pleaseth.” Next in order, therefore, is the question: what takes place when the gospel is proclaimed? What is the reaction to those good tidings? And this question is treated in the present article.
Here for the first time the fathers make direct mention of the fact that not all men are saved. For according to this article, there are those upon whom the wrath of God abideth, on the one hand; and on the other, there are men who are delivered from the wrath of God, and from destruction, and who have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them, or, as the original has it, “are gifted with eternal life.” Not all men, therefore, are saved. There is somehow a distinction: some are saved, and upon some the wrath of God remains.
In this connection it is important to notice the viewpoint of the Canons once more. It can scarcely be said that the fathers speak the language of infralapsarianism here, for more than one reason. In the first place, while they do not quote Scripture directly, nor give the Scriptural references, it is nevertheless true that they speak the language of Scripture. There is a clear reference in this article to: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” And if we say that the fathers speak here from the infralapsarian viewpoint, we shall have to admit that Scripture itself speaks “infra” language. And the latter can scarcely be maintained. And in the second place, the Canons are not busy in this particular article with any question concerning God’s decrees or the logical order of God’s decrees (as is the question in regard to “supra” and “infra”), but rather with the concrete question as to what is the effect in time among men of the preaching of the gospel. The viewpoint, therefore, while it is not infralapsarian, is indeed historical. Thus it is to be explained that the fathers speak of those “upon whom the wrath of God abideth” and those who are “delivered from the wrath of God, and from destruction.” The viewpoint is that ail men lie under the wrath of God, apart from Christ; and that upon some men that wrath of God remaineth, while others are delivered therefrom. Some are under that wrath to begin with, and wrath is not removed from them: it remaineth. Others are also under that wrath of God by nature, but it does not remain upon them: they are delivered.
Nevertheless, we have not yet reached the subject of election and reprobation in this article. Also this distinction between those who are delivered and those who are left under the wrath of God is here viewed from the strictly historical viewpoint of faith and unbelief. In other words; if in this article you ask the question: who are saved, and upon whom does the wrath of God remain? You receive the answer: “The wrath of God abideth upon those that believe not this gospel. But such as receive it, and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith, are by him delivered from the wrath of God….” The viewpoint is very plainly, therefore, that of faith and unbelief: the unbelievers go lost, while the believers are saved.
Rather than lose ourselves in a maze of expositions as to what is faith, and what is unbelief, and why are the believers saved while the unbelievers go lost,—questions which do not belong, strictly speaking, to this article,—we prefer to let the simple proposition of this article stand. The article intends very definitely to emphasize just exactly that truth: upon those who do not believe the wrath of God abideth, and those who believe are delivered from God’s wrath and gifted with eternal life. We are not called in this connection to define faith and to mention its elements of knowledge and confidence. It will do no harm, however, to note: 1. That in this article the activity of faith, as well as the activity of unbelief, are on the foreground. It is those who receive the gospel, and who embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith who are saved. And on the other hand, the Canons do not simply say that those who do not receive the gift of faith go lost, but that those “who believe not” this gospel go lost. 2. At the same time it is of importance to note that the real activity of faith is described by the fathers. A true and living faith is a faith by which we embrace Jesus the Savior. And Jesus the Savior is the only begotten Son whom God sent into the world, and in Whom God’s love was manifested. 3. And finally, while it is perfectly proper and necessary to stress the above truths, as do the Canons, we by all means must not overlook the fact that the Canons do not stop here, as well as the fact that they stress these truths exactly in the context of an exposition of the truth of divine predestination. Here, therefore, the Canons give us some sound instruction on how to preach on the activity of faith. And the lesson is indeed enlightening. In the first place, we are taught that it will never do to stop after we have proclaimed the truth of Article 4. And we may safely assert that to stop there is to become guilty of Arminianism. Any Arminian will agree with this fourth article without hesitation. And that means that a Reformed preacher will never stop at that point. Nor will he, in faithfulness to his ministerial vow, simply “take for granted” that his people know the rest, know that faith is not of ourselves, and know that it is only the elect who receive the gift of faith. That lesson consists, in the second place, in this, that it will also not suffice to place the truth of Article 4 and the truth of divine predestination along side of each other, without establishing any real connection between the two, or leaving the question of that connection to the imagination of the hearers, or, what is still worse, positing a contrast between these two truths, with an emphatic “but, but, but.” Instead, the Canons go on, and they insist that we have not reached the root of the matter, and that there is another question, an important question, which forces itself upon our attention, and which demand with inexorable insistence a clear answer. That question which cannot be avoided is this: who believe that gospel, and who do not?
And let us note that this question is important not only from the point of view of the objective truth, from the point of view of our Reformed faith. It is that indeed. But let me emphasize that exactly that question is an important one for every single child of God who is concerned about his salvation. It is a practical question, a question of life or death, a question to which you and I must have the answer, or else we can have no peace. Not only so, but we must, as Christians, have the answer to that question time and time again. We must hear it for our assurance, continually, day in and day out. For mark you well, our Canons began with the proposition that all men have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and are deserving of eternal death. And to be sure, they will elaborate on that truth in such a fashion that we are left by nature in a wholly hopeless position. But already now, he who knows what it means that we have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and are deserving of eternal death,—really knows it,—will feel the hopelessness of a gospel which stops with saying, “Believe, believe, believe.” He must know how to believe. He must know who they are that believe. He must be able to flee for refuge and comfort to that gracious truth that while faith is not and can never be of himself it is the gift of God, given according to the standard of sovereign predestination. Our Canons, therefore, will proceed in their exposition of the truth. And in the following article, they begin to give an answer to the question, the all-important question: who are they that believe?
And the beauty of this all is that the enemy, the Arminian enemy, can never say that we deny faith, and the necessity of faith, and the activity of faith. Listen! The fathers teach it, and we confess it, because the Scriptures teach it: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved. And he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” But listen! You must hear that brief expression of the gospel as but a part of the whole counsel of God!